So what’s the point of the church…of us? What are we for? Why do we exist?
When we are looking for answers, the Book of Acts is a good place to start. After all, it begins just as the risen Jesus ascends into heaven, no longer visible in human form…and chronicles what happened next. What happens to a group of people who, overcome by despair in watching their beloved friend executed…are shocked by seeing him alive again? What happens to people who spend months and years following Jesus …following him in his way of loving and forgiving sinners and healing the sick of body and mind and basically focusing on seeing the presence of God in the world around them instead of trying to get ahead and take advantage of the world around them…what happens when Jesus is killed by the authorities and even though they’ve seen him…seen him right in their midst…they know everyone else thinks believing in resurrection is crazy.
What happens? Amazingly…they don’t hide. They don’t go back to business as usual. They believe themselves. They trust themselves. They trust their experience…their experience knowing Jesus, and their experience of the risen Jesus…and they realize it’s still the only thing that matters in the world. So they keep loving and forgiving sinners…and they keep healing the sick of body and mind…and they keep seeing the presence of God in the world around them.They keep telling people about Jesus…because they believe. They believe that he is the true power of God in our midst. He is the one who makes sense of the world. And who makes sense of us….who makes sense of our lives.
What’s the point of the church? What are we here for? To tell people about Jesus and his love. To make sense of the world…to make sense of our lives.
The book of Acts tells the stories of how those first followers shared the story of Jesus…and how it took hold throughout the Mediteranean. Paul quickly becomes a central figure in the story — Paul, who actually didn’t even meet Jesus before his death. Paul, who was initially a persecutor of Christians…who worked for the Jewish authorities to root out the heresy of those who were preaching that Jesus was the Messiah…to root it out by any means possible.. .including murder. But then, Paul meets Jesus. On his way to destroy the church, the risen Jesus speaks to him…and Paul’s heart and life are transformed. And then, he begins to travel throughout the region…to cities all around the Mediterannean sea — telling people about Jesus… who made sense of his world…who made sense of his life. Telling people about Jesus and his love. Last Sunday, Matt read from Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica, reflecting back on his visit there and encouraging them in their faith. This week, we read from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Corinth was a city that many historians have referred to as the “Las Vegas” of Ancient Greece — drawing people from all over the known world and known to be a place where wealth was flaunted and prostitution and drunkenness and excesses of all kinds were ready available. The church in Corinth began when Paul travelled there and befriended a couple, Priscilla and Aquila, who had recently settled there as Jewish refugees after being driven out of Rome. Priscilla and Aquila, were tentmakers, and Paul found work with them. It says in Acts that Paul was “of the same trade”. It seems, perhaps, that the trade he learned as a young man before taking on his role as a henchman for the religious authorities….was making tents.
And, as it turns out, that is where church begins. In the home of Priscilla and Aquila. It begins with the people who didn’t just hear his arguments, but who saw the way he lived — who witnessed the way a man once driven by the need to defend a pure and right religion was transformed into a man who preached the grace and love of Jesus for all.
Priscilla and Aquila also come to know the love and grace of Jesus and then become leaders in the church at Corinth.
But, after Paul leaves, there are divisions and struggles that break down in their community. In the midst of a culture of excess and self indulgence….it’s probably not a surprise that grace becomes an excuse for “anything goes”. And in the quest to be “best” in Corinth’s culture that prized excellence, different groups pop up, claiming to have the “better” version of the faith…you know…”Paul’s version”…or Cephas’s (Peter’s) …or Apollo’s… and all those who claimed “we REALLY have Christ’s version, not you.”
Basically, what happens in Corinth is what has continued to happen throughout history in the church and quite frankly, in every faith community. The need to be right. To be better. To be pure. And the need to justify our own sin. Over and over those human desires work their way into all our communities faith…not just Christian, but Jewish and Muslim and Buddhist and Hindu and Mormon …the need to be right. To be better. To be pure…and to justify our sin…our evil, our hatred, our injustice, our cruelty. And every time it happens, grace is lost. Love is lost. The heart of God is lost and the faith is emptied of its meaning. We lose the very thing that makes sense of our world…and of our lives.
Paul knows that the power of God is not in our wisdom…it is not in how right and pure and smart and better we are. He’s been down that road. He knows it better than anyone…it failed him miserably. No, Paul has come to know that the power of God is fully revealed in Jesus…. In the cross of Jesus. In what looks like failure and weakness and hopelessness….but is truly God’s loving heart present in the midst of our pain and desperation…claiming that nothing …nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love. Paul has come to know that being right doesn’t matter…but being loved is everything.
Paul writes to a church, already losing sight of Jesus….already losing sight of the kind of grace that sees every person as a child of God…already disintegrating into petty “I’m better than you” arguments….already justifying their excesses in the face of others’ needs….already excusing people who are using and abusing others…and tries to bring them back to the heart of things. Back to the radical grace of Jesus…that is not an excuse to do evil…but an invitation to be loved…and to love. Next week…we’ll read the Scripture we are most familiar with in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Chapter 13…all about Love that is patient and kind, that doesn’t boast or insist on its own way.
Paul begs that the church…the followers of Jesus, might be united in our purpose. And what is that purpose? What is the purpose of the church? To be loved and to love.
This week, we were having a conversation with the Bells about “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”, the movie about Fred Rogers. I grew up with Mr. Rogers. Many of you know he was actually a pastor. And if you watched his show…most of it could be summed up in 4 sentences. You matter. Other people matter. We need each other. Be kind.
You matter. Other people matter. We need each other. Be kind. Fred Rogers preached the gospel. Not with eloquent arguments…but with simplicity. Be loved and love.
I have seen extraordinary kindness and graciousness and self-sacrifice during this time of global pandemic. But I have also seen all sorts of anger and self righteousness and justification of sin. This morning, Paul calls us back to our heart…to our purpose…to Jesus. Paul calls us back to the only thing that makes sense of the world and of our lives. To be loved and to love. That is it…what it means to be human. The only thing that matters. May we be united in that mind and purpose. Because you matter. And others matter. And we need each other. Let’s be kind. Amen.